The launch of Crocodile Enrichment Training Demo
“Soham, you’ve gotta make sure that your training group performs well on the day” said Patrick – Director, Madras Crocodile Bank, looking a bit concerned.
He had a good reason for concern. We were launching the ‘Croc Enrichment Training Program’ for public. People can buy an extra ticket and watch the enrichment show. Crocs get enriched life, Croc Bank makes some extra bucks for conservation, and people get to see how smart and awesome these guys are. Super idea!
**Flashback a couple of months**
“We should really materialize the enrichment show now. It can be a great attraction, and it has a great potential to work as an educational tool” said Gerry Martin – Education Consultant, Madras Crocodile Bank. “We’ve been going on talking about the possibility since a long time now. Let’s take it forward”
“Yeah man, that’ll be fun! I’m all ready” I said smiling; though I wasn’t sure as Ally and gang had never performed in front of a crowd. They usually chicken out (underwater!) when they see a lot of people. Getting them used to a big crowd would take some efforts; but it will be very interesting. It will give me a chance to see how far I can go with enrichment training, how much can I influence them, how much of the behavior can actually be modified. Should I have tried all of this first before opening my big mouth? Eeh.. too late now.. Just look confident…
“So when do you think we’ll open up for public” I asked hoping I’ll get some good time to sort things out with my crocs.
“A couple of months maybe”
“Okay!” Can’t laze around anymore!
Soon me, Gerry and Patrick were discussing future renovation plans to make the enclosure look better. Also, these crocs were reaching an age where they start displaying dominance and start establishing their rank in the hierarchy. All around 8-9 years old. It was getting a bit dangerous at times working with 6, very agile crocs, all at the same time. If I spend more time with one, the others would lose patience and sneak up.
“We need some sort of partition in the enclosure to start with” I suggested. Only I knew how important it was to get that damn partition finally! Now, with the partition, I would be able to work with one croc at a time without worrying about getting ambushed. What a relief that would be 🙂
I drew some basic fence designs which were fine, and then I drew a basic grandstand design which made a lot of sense to me, but not so much to others. Need to enhance the grandstand design with some figures; who’d do it better than Steven Whealing, our then all round volunteer. Thanks Steve for that one! Our current grandstand is based on your design.
With the fence up, I now had to set up a regular routine to streamline the crocs’ entry, performance, and exit. But hey, what about the crowd factor? How do I gather a crowd?
“We’ll call all the staff and volunteers” suggested Akanksha.
Good idea, but I was a bit skeptical. I tried to utilize every opportunity of an induced crowd. The crowd was requested to behave like an Indian crowd; talk loudly, whistle, clap for no reason, try to distract me and the crocs, etc. Our long term volunteers and docents were usually forced to be the crowd!
Progress was going on fine. I was ready. Crocs were ready. I had also geared up the big Muggers in pen 8 for a walk on the wooden ramp.
“Rambo”, the new dominant male in pen 8
Photo by Keerthi Krutha
But can an event go fine without a dent? Nope, not in my life!
On the morning of ‘the day’, I woke up to a loud motor noise.
“Oh duck! (I changed the first letter to maintain decency)”
Crocs can get freaked out very easily. We were maintaining a very calm environment all these days. We also requested the temple people across the road to lower the volume of festive songs after 13:00hrs. This motor noise can ruin the whole day! If they get spooked, they will not perform, as simple as that. Our maintenance department decided to choose that day to empty out some of the septic tanks, how interesting..
I could only wait and watch.
Janaki and Rom arrived a couple of hours before the launch. Janaki had called earlier to set up a time when she could take some pics of me and Ally for her article. I thought of working with her would be a good idea now. This might make Ally a bit more comfortable before the show.
“Hey Janaki, jump in!”
Ally came out but was not quite comfortable. I was a bit anxious. She is the star and if she doesn’t perform well, it’s gonna be a disaster…. or maybe not, some or the other croc will perform. The show won’t go blank.
Guests started arriving at 16:00hrs. Gerry, Rom, and Patrick were leading the group on a guided tour. Croc Bank Docents did a fantastic job coordinating the whole event.
|Gerry addressing the guests
Photo by Shafeeq Ahmed
Jaws III, our largest croc was in top form that day. Gave a jaw-dropping performance!
|Jaws III was super active!
Photo by Gowri Mallapur
Now is the time for my gang; Ally and co.
I started with an introductory speech, explaining the importance of enrichment training, and how it also works as a management as well as an educational tool. I emphasized on how it is primarily a husbandry approach, and is for the welfare of crocs. The “show” part of it is only secondary. I also mentioned (of course!) that they were performing in front of a full capacity crowd for the first time; apologies for any misbehavior or non-performance. I jumped in thinking this would not be as good as expected considering the spooky, noisy morning; just hoped for the best.
“Guys, please don’t let me down” I passed on the message in subsonic frequency.
|Grand performance by “Ally”
Photo by Shafeeq Ahmed
I was awesomely surprised when they all performed brilliantly, Ally especially. Far better than I expected. They were fantabulous! I wanted to hug all of them, but I could only imagine that. The show went superb. How could I underestimate them so much?!
All the excited guests were guided to the tent for Rom’s presentation. I stayed back for some time.
“You guys really made me proud today!” another one of those subsonic conversations.
I glanced at all of them with a big smile on my face. I looked at Ally.
I promise I saw her wink!